How can there be so many conflicting spins on the Pew religion report?
The way America's news reporting outlets headlined the Pew Center's recent report on American faith tells more about U.S. journalism than the nation's religion
BY: Rob Kerby, Senior Editor
It’s amazing what magic can be spun, indeed what personal agendas can be supported with a few selectively chosen statistics. Recently the Pew Center released results of its latest religious survey. The headlines that resulted are astonishing in their diversity – and reflect some very revealing biases:
“Pew survey finds 1 in 5 Americans, mostly Democrats, have no religion,” proclaimed the arch-conservative Daily Caller.
“Anti-Gay, Anti-Choice Churches Are Creating Their Own Demise,” announced the hyper-liberal Huffington Post.
“Americans increasingly report no religious ties,” proclaimed Canada’s Victoria Times-Colonist newspaper.
“Irreligious people on the rise? Or just suspicious polling practices?” speculated the iconoclastic American Thinker.
“Churches seek to reclaim the religiously unaffiliated,” reported the moderate St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“No Surprise: Senior Citizens Most Likely to Be Affiliated with Religion,” reported the Senior Journal.
Then there was “Non-religious surpass Protestants in US,” from the Waterloo Record newspaper in Iowa. That article most blatantly didn’t reflect the Pew survey, which found that 48 percent of Americans consider themselves Protestants. The other 52 percent include millions of Catholics, who would be astonished that the Waterloo Record considers them non-religious. In fact, the survey found that 6 percent of the public is now atheist or agnostic. Apparently the Waterloo Record headline writer didn’t bother to read the Pew report.
Another 14 percent told the Pew surveyors that they are “not affiliated” with any particular church. However, of those 68 percent said they believe in God and 21 percent said they pray every day. This hardly lumps them into “non-believers” – just uncomfortable with traditional labels.
We see the same thing in politics these days – with increasing numbers of “independents” willing to consider both Republican and Democratic arguments, unwilling to brand themselves “conservative” or “liberal.” They are those swing voters that Obama and Romney are spending $1 billion each trying to convince.
And so, the most accurate headline award would seem to go to the Post-Dispatch – which points out that today’s churches have their work cut out for them. The American public has not abandoned the Christian faith – no matter what some agnostic headline writer might hope.
Pew’s numbers show that 48 percent of the country is Protestant, 22 percent is Catholic, 1 percent is Orthodox and more than half of the unaffiliated still believe. That’s somewhere around 77 percent of the American public.
So, where are the headlines: “Three-fourths of Americans still secure in their faith?” After all, the Pew report states rather bluntly: “To be sure, the United States remains a highly religious country – particularly by comparison with other advanced industrial democracies – and some measures of religious commitment in America have held remarkably steady over the years. The number of Americans who currently say religion is very important in their lives (58 percent), for instance, is little changed since 2007 (61 percent) and is far higher than in Britain (17 percent), France (13 percent), Germany (21 percent) or Spain (22 percent). And over the longer term, Pew Research surveys find no change in the percentage of Americans who say that prayer is an important part of their daily life; it is 76 percent in 2012, the same as it was 25 years ago, in 1987.”
But that finding isn’t exciting. It doesn’t sell newspapers – or draw people to your website.
Just glancing at the headlines resulting from the Pew study provides a very revealing look at the biased state of American journalism.
The Huffington Post article is almost as preposterous as the Waterloo Record’s. The HufPo deftly spun Pew’s numbers to prove that churches holding to biblical bans on homosexuality are killing Christianity in America. Well, no, the churches embracing gay and lesbian clergy are the ones seeing dramatic declines in membership. It’s the conservative congregations that are showing gains.
And the others? Interesting angle from the Daily Caller – which doesn’t particularly like liberals or Democrats. The Pew report does note that “the religiously unaffiliated are an increasingly important segment of the electorate. In the 2008 presidential election, they voted as heavily for Barack Obama as white evangelical Protestants did for John McCain. More than six-in-ten religiously unaffiliated registered voters are Democrats (39 percent) or lean toward the Democratic Party (24 percent). They are about twice as likely to describe themselves as political liberals than as conservatives.
Did anybody get it right? Incredibly, the “most accurate headline” award would go to Time magazine with “Everyone Is Misreading the New Numbers of Religiously ‘Unaffiliated’.”
Amen! Preach on, Bruthah!